Shame vs. Guilt

This week's Parashat Vayigash was written by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l about the topic of forgiveness.

Photo by horacio olavarria on Unsplash

Joseph forgives. That, as I have argued before, was a turning point in history. For this was the first recorded act of forgiveness in literature…
When he first reveals himself to them, he says, "And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you" (Gen. 45:5).
This sounds like forgiveness, but as this week's parsha makes clear, it is not necessarily so. The word "forgiveness" is not used. And the brothers may well have assumed that Joseph intended to take revenge but not during the lifetime of their father. That is what provokes the drama at the end of this week's parsha.
When Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, "What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?"
So they sent word to Joseph, "Your father left these instructions before he died: 'This is what you are to say to Joseph: Please forgive your brothers' wrong and the sin they committed in treating you so badly.' Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father" (Gen. 50:15-17).
This was Joseph's response:
Joseph said to them, "Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don't be afraid. I will provide for you and your children." And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them (Gen. 50:19-21)
This is forgiveness. Joseph does not use the word, but he makes it clear that he foregoes all thought of revenge.
What is happening here and why did it not happen in other cultures? This is one of the most fascinating features of Judaism, and why it eventually made such a difference to the world.
Note what has to happen for forgiveness to be born.
First, Joseph engages in an elaborate plan, hiding his identity, to make sure the brothers were capable of remorse and atonement.
This happens on their first encounter in Egypt, when he accuses them of being spies, and they say in his presence - not knowing that he could understand them - "Surely we are guilty because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that's why this distress has come upon us" (Gen. 42:21).
They know they have done wrong. They acknowledge their guilt.
Second, Joseph arranges a trial that will test whether Judah, the brother who proposed selling him into slavery in the first place, is indeed a changed person.
He has Benjamin brought before him on a false charge, and is about take him as his slave when Judah intervenes and offers to become a slave in his place so that Benjamin can go free.
This is what the sages and Maimonides defined as complete repentance; that is, you have so changed that you are now a different person.
These two elements tell us what has changed in the brothers so that they, the wrongdoers, can be forgiven.
There is a change in Joseph too… He has reframed his life, so that the entire story of his relationship with his brothers has now become utterly secondary to the drama of Divine providence that is still unfolding.
As he explains: "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good." This is what allows the victim, Joseph, to forgive.
These, though, are details.
What is absolutely fundamental is that Judaism represents, for the first time in history, a morality of guilt rather than shame.
In the past we've explored some of the elements that made it possible. Earlier this year we spoke of the difference between tradition-directed cultures and - what the call to Abraham initiates - inner-directed ones.
Tradition-directed individuals, when they break the rules, feel shame. Inner-directed personalities feel guilt.
We also spoke about the difference between cultures of the eye and of the ear.
Visual cultures are almost always shame cultures. Shame is what you feel when you imagine other people seeing what you are doing. The first instinct when you feel shame is to try to hide or to wish you were invisible.
In cultures of hearing, however, morality is represented by an inner voice, the voice of guilt that you cannot hide from even if you are invisible to the world.
The key difference between the two is that in shame cultures, wrongdoing is like a stain on the person.
Hence the only way to be rehabilitated is to have the stain covered up somehow (the meaning, as we noted, of the verb k-p-r). You do this by placating the victim of your wrong so that in effect he "turns a blind eye" to what you did. His resentment, indignation and desire for revenge have been appeased.
In guilt cultures, however, there is a fundamental distinction between the person and his or her acts.
It was the act that was wrong, not the person. That is what makes forgiveness possible. I forgive you because, when you admit you did wrong, express remorse and do all you can to make amends, especially when I see that, given the opportunity (as was Judah) to repeat the crime you do not do so because you have changed, then I see that you have distanced yourself from your deed.
Forgiveness means I fundamentally reaffirm your worth as a person,
despite the fact that we both know your act was wrong.
Forgiveness exists in righteousness-and-guilt cultures. It does not exist in honour-and-shame cultures like those of ancient Greece and pre-Christian Rome.
Contemporary culture in the West, often thought by secularists to be morally superior to the ethics of the Hebrew Bible, is in fact - for good or bad - a regression to pre-Christian Greece and Rome.
That is why, nowadays, people who are found to have done wrong are publicly shamed. Examples are not necessary: they abound in every day's news.
In a shame culture, the main thing to do is not to be found out, because once you are, there is no way back. There is no place in such a culture for forgiveness. At best you seek to appease. As in ancient Greece, the culprit argues, "I couldn't help it; it wasn't that bad; it's human nature; I was carried away." They undergo some ritual of self-abasement.
Eventually they hope, not that people will forgive but that they will forget. This is an ugly kind of culture.
Which is why Judaism remains the eternal alternative.
What matters is not outward appearances, but the inner voice.
And when we do wrong, as we all do, there is a way forward: to confess, express remorse, atone, make amends, and like Judah, change.
To know that however wrong our deeds, "the soul You gave me is pure," [from the morning prayer service based on Talmud Brahot 60b] and that if we work hard enough on ourselves, we can be forgiven, is to inhabit a culture of grace and hope.
And that is a life-changing idea.

Shabbat Shalom